Posts Tagged ‘reviews’
At some point during the eighth episode of Mad Dogs—I believe it was between when the bomb exploded and when the chihuahua got its throat cut—I got to thinking: This shit is hard. I don’t mean survival for Cobi, Joel, Gus, and Lex, mind you—I mean writing it. Like Breaking Bad and Fargo before it, Mad Dogs depends on a plot structure of interlocking catastrophes so intricate you’d practically need those robot arms they use to handle plutonium to pull it off. The go-to comparison is dominoes, with one thing falling on top of the next as everything speeds out of control, but that implies a linearity that doesn’t exist here. TV shows like this are like dominoes if and only if occasionally new dominoes spring up from the ground, or drop out of the sky, or materialize from space, or are fired from a drone piloted by the CIA. They’ve got to simultaneously maintain the tension of knowing something bad’s going to happen and wanting to avoid it, the suspense of not knowing something bad is going to happen but suspecting that it will, the shock of having something bad happen completely out of the blue, the plausibility that all these events could conceivably occur (within a TV show or movie, anyway) without knocking you out of the story with their ridiculousness, the raw mechanical skill to make the action plain entertaining, and the emotional stakes of protagonists and antagonists you enjoy watching, if not care about as people. Even to a writer who can see the wires, so to speak, pulling off this feat feels close to magic.
I reviewed episode 8 of Mad Dogs and wrote quite a bit about both the Breaking Bad model of constant-bad-shit-happening TV and the importance of a great villain to genre storytelling.
Remember those episodes of Breaking Bad where the show was less a story than a series of unfortunate events? The ones where no matter what Walt and Jesse tried to do, they were met with a neverending cascade of calamities, each one more unexpected than the last? Okay, yeah, that’s pretty much all the episodes of Breaking Bad. But it fits “Ice Cream,” the seventh ep of Mad Dogs, to a tee as well.
So here is Chamberlain, dining at Downton as have countless men and women before him—only to face a literal eruption of blood from a human body that no one there had predicted or planned for, except perhaps for the stomach ulcer responsible. Is there something being said here about the experience of the real Chamberlain, who believed he’d secured peace for the people of Europe, when he’d unwittingly handed a monster the knife he needed to slit the world’s throat? There’s more to the episode than this of course—Mary gets wind of Marigold’s true parentage, Edith falls in love while she and her new editor invent the thinkpiece, Tom helps Mary get closer to Henry the racecar driver (while, god willing, getting closer to her himself), Thomas and Andy have their rapprochement, Carson is a dick to Hughes, the adventures of Denker and Spratt continue, etc. But I’ll be thinking of the crimson river bursting out of Lord Robert, and how all Neville Chamberlain could do was watch.
It’s impossible to overstate how refreshing it is to see neither BDSM nor the decision not to participate in it portrayed as a sign of pathology or a relationship in crisis. The Rhoadeses engage in kink for reasons that help them in their real lives, in their marriage, and (one presumes) in just plain getting off; when it looks like one or more of those elements won’t work out, they call it off, no harm no foul. Turning down sex needn’t be a line in the sand, a declaration that one person is right and the other person is wrong, a flashing red light that the romance is dying—it can simply mean you’d prefer to do something else, no big deal. This is a vital side of sexual consent that’s rarely portrayed, as is healthy kink. Who’d have guessed it’d come from this show? Billions has nothing but itself to blame for making that so surprising. There’s a fine line between sleaze and good, clean, smart smut. I’m hoping starts crossing that line in the right direction more regularly.
Without the great Allison Tolman as a stabilizing and unifying presence, “Leslie,”Mad Dogs’ sixth installment, resumes its previously very, very heavily serialized model. As I’ve said before, the show’s episodes increasingly feel less like cohesive (if to-be-continued) units and more like fifty-plus minutes torn off at random from a ten-hour reel. Think of how different the first half of this ep, with its Outbreak/Contagion quarantine claustrophobia and paranoia, feels from the second, with Joel and Cobi cutting and running and communing with beatific locals and tourists they encounter along the way. You could have rolled the closing credits right in the middle and begun an entirely new episode for all their stylistic and thematic continuity.
Allison Tolman is a tremendous screen presence and her casting here is a real coup, like plopping a fifth main character right into the action halfway through the season. Even if she doesn’t last—and that’s how it’s looking, though on this show anything’s possible—she transformed the dynamic simply by being there. For one thing, her presence opened up space for kindness between the characters and the people they meet, a note that had been almost entirely absent for hours now. A story with Rochelle in it, however briefly, is a story where our foursome can stop to help scavenging street kids, where Joel can admiringly commune with a local living the good life with his wife and goats up in the mountains, where Gus and Cobi can hold children on their laps and sing songs to them to make them laugh, where Lex can have a kind and quiet conversation about music and life on the road with a person who won’t at some point condescend to his addictions and failures. It’s a story where the black-comedy nightmare can clear up for a few minutes, giving everyone much-needed emotional breathing room.
I’ve never really bought the idea that Amazon and Netflix are doing something materially distinct from HBO and AMC or any other terrestrial TV network. Television has been doing heavy serialization since The Wire, and before that Twin Peaks, and before, during, and after that in every single daytime soap. Netflix and Amazon execs can make all the noise they want about seeing the season rather than the episode as the fundamental storytelling unit, but this too is basically true of every good prestige drama, to one extent or another—just ask David Simon. In my experience, if a streaming series suffers when seen one episode at a time as opposed to in multi-hour chunks, that’s not because streaming TV is a different medium, it’s because the show isn’t that great. Jessica Jones would not have been less a slog had I watched five episodes a day instead of one, you know?
As critiques of Toxic Masculinity™ go, it’s pretty cutting. Who doesn’t love their crime thrillers with a terrifying, gun-toting dwarf in an animal mask mixed in? It’s precisely the kind of surreal badassery such films have trafficked in since the world first heard the phrase “bring out the gimp.” You could read Cobi, Lex, Gus, and Joel trimming the Cat’s claws as Mad Dogs indulging that kind of cinematic cool just long enough to reject it.
When a dwarf in a cat mask shoots your friend to death and warns you to return his stolen property in 24 hours or you’ll be next, you’ve pretty much got your day planned out for you. It’s also reasonable to assume this has the TV series in which you’re starring pretty much mapped out as well. Surely Cobi, Gus, Joel, and Lex, the feckless foursome at the heart of Mad Dogs, will spend its ten-episode run battling their way back to the boat, like Martin Sheen going up the river looking for Colonel Kurtz (who they went so far as to name-drop in the pilot), right?
Wrong, actually. Well, kinda. Within the first few minutes of “Xtabai,” Mad Dogs’ second episode (which you can watch on Amazon Prime Video), our heroes have already triumphantly returned to the stolen yacht that got their frienemy Milo murdered. Granted, it gets a whole lot more complicated from there. But the unexpected immediacy with which they find the boat was a pleasant shock to the system. For one thing, zooming right through what seemed like it was going to be a long journey through beaucoup screentime toward an obviously inevitable destination was a smart storytelling decision. Unless you’re Game of Thrones, a lot of shows would benefit from taking a hatchet to all the buildup and just getting down to business. For another, genre shows like this rely on familiarity way more than originality — that’s what makes a genre a genre, after all, common tonal and narrative elements — so almost any curveball is worth throwing.
Chronicling the lifestyles of the rich and bodyshameless has always been abyss-gazes-also shit, with the line between critique and exploitation blurring the moment the panties drop. Surrounding some outré sex shit with the trappings of big money, then stepping back and going “Wild, huh? Really makes you think” doesn’t make anyone think at all, not without a level of technical and tonal control of a Martin Scorsese—and Wolf of Wall Street even gave him a run for his money. (It worked, though, unless you’re the type to hold filmmakers responsible for the reactions of the biggest moral morons in the audience.) Right now we’re simply not far enough into the parallel narratives of Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod, not well versed enough in the rules that govern the show’s handling of sexuality and morality, not well-acquainted enough with any of the characters involved for this Strong Sexual Content shit to feel like anything but a corny, horny Showtime After Hours series.
It’s worth leaning hard on this, because the rest of the show still seems promising enough to handle constructive criticism. In this episode, the scenes in which Axe and his merry (mostly) men quote GoodFellas and trade R-rated insults so elaborate they must stay up late workshopping them is as sharp about the malignant side of masculinity as the sex stuff elsewhere is sloppy. “We have to be more pure than the Virgin Mary before her first period,” Axelrod’s right-hand man Wags warns his crew as the SEC closes in; “Fuck, Wags,” Axe chuckles, admiring the effort to come up with just the right grotesque thing to say. Elsewhere he cuts Wags off in the middle of a hurdling metaphor to ostentatiously spare a down-on-his-luck broker’s feelings. This is a game to them, and as long as they’re winning they’ll play by whatever rules they like.
They almost never makes it into the actual reviews, but as God is my witness my notes for every episode of Downton Abbey are full of the wit and wisdom of the Dowager Countess, and this episode alone had at least three exchanges for the ages. There was her back-and-forth with Lord Robert about how despite her handsome racecar-driving suitor, Lady Mary needed more than “a handsome smile and a hand on the gearstick”: “I’m surprised you know what a gearstick is.” “I know more than you think.” There was her dismay with her supposed ringer in the great hospital debate, Lady Prudence Shackleton, for failing to come to her aid during the argument: “How can I present myself as an expert when I don’t know the facts?” “It’s never stopped me!” And there was her riposte to Lady Edith for daring to suggest Isobel Crawley had a right to be heard: “I suppose Cousin Isobel is entitled to put up an argument.” “Of course she is! She’s just not entitled to win it!” With that, Lady Violet began chuckling and cooing to herself, as if simultaneously appreciating her own rapier wit and soothing her frazzled nerves like a purring cat. So if I’m not shining the spotlight on Dame Maggie Smith and Lady Violet, it’s not because she doesn’t deserve it—it’s because she’s been stealing it so deftly herself.
But it’s Thomas Barrow and Lady Mary Crawley who are Downton Abbey’s major creations. As Thomas and Mary, Rob James-Collier and Michelle Dockery have great faces, great voices, and feel taut and unyielding in a way few leads this side of Betty Draper are allowed to be. The Dowager gets most of the laugh lines, but these two challengingly, rewardingly difficult characters get far stronger stuff, and we get more out of them in turn. On last night’s episode, we got plenty.
In TV terms, the spectacle of middle-aged men indulging their id is abundant and low value, so to speak; this means Mad Dogs’ execution must be unimpeachably tight to distinguish it. Provided the premise alone doesn’t turn you off, so far so good. The cast is solid, yes, and the tropical-paradise eye candy is tasty, though that’s easy enough for TV today too. But what really works is the editing, the rapid-fire kind we olds used to call “MTV style” but which you rarely see in contemporary dramas. It gives the proceedings a sort of adrenaline sheen, but it can be played with to great effect too, whether by dragging things out—a club sequence crash cuts through three different and distinctive songs to suggest that the gang stayed there for a long time—or slowing things down—the quieter scenes drop the staccato rhythm for longer takes that drive the importance home.
Ronald Reagan once said “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Far be it from me to encourage a journalist to heed the words of the Gipper—explaining is what journalists do, after all—but in the case of Serial, he’s got a point. “Our one story, told week by week, will now be week biweek,” Sarah Koenig announced on last week’s non-episode episode of her podcast. “Get it?” she asked, before answering her own rhetorical question in the negative: “No? ‘Biweek,’ like ‘biweekly’? B-I-weekly?” We’re not 15 seconds into the announcement that Serial is shifting to an every-other-week schedule before Koenig begins apologizing for her own writing. “Sorry, that’s a pun that only print could love, and I just tried to pull it in an audio story.”Could print love that pun, though, really? I mean, you tell me. I just wrote it up, it’s sitting there a few lines above this one, and “biweek” still isn’t an actual word, printed or no. To paraphrase Harrison Ford’s famous critique of George Lucas: Sarah, you can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it. Maybe you shouldn’t type it either.
But that’s Sarah Koenig’s Serial for you. Once this procrustean podcast has settled on an idea and a format, it’s by-god sticking with them, no matter how little sense that makes. Of course, forcing a pun that she admits almost immediately doesn’t work is the least of Koenig’s problems in that regard. Now that “Meanwhile, in Tampa,” the series’ delayed fifth episode, is finally up and running, it’s apparent that the show’s difficulties are only intensified by the biweekly schedule. Whether told week by week or week biweek [sic], this “one story” has yet to be presented in a way that justifies its telling at all.
As a rule, it is better to be pissed off than pissed on. Chuck Rhoades, however, doesn’t play by the rules. Pissed off? Plenty. Played Paul Giamattically by Paul Giamatti, the crusading attorney general at the heart of Showtime’s new show Billions spends the bulk of the high-finance drama’s pilot fuming about one damn thing or another. But during the opening scene, in which a a faceless woman extinguishes a cigarette on his bare chest and then urinates on the burn, he’s happy as a clam. There’s a time and a place for it, sure, but ol’ Chuck rejects your pissed on/pissed off binary. He’s bodyfulid-fluid. Cable drama, motherfuckers! It’s where anything can happen…and usually does!
I’m covering Billions for the New York Observer this season! First up is my review of the series premiere, which was better than that opening scene but still hamstrung by it.
Tom’s in his Downton, all’s right with the world. I hope you’re sitting down, but yes, I, Sean Thomas Patrick Collins, am Irish-American. So when it comes to Downton Abbey, I relate to and root for chauffeur-turned-radicalt-turned-suitor-turned-aristocrat-turned-widow-turned-American Tom Branson the way tomboys connect to Arya Stark, or how people who believe sociopaths who slaughter human beings like pigs just need someone to love pull for Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham to finally make it official. So imagine, just effing imagine, my unspoiled delight when I heard his dulcet brogue ring out from off screen during the wedding reception for Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes. Picture my unbridled joy when he said he’s back from Boston for good, ready to rejoin the family and the place he loves. Take my hand in yours and pray with me that finally, finally, he and Lady Mary will get together, a romance I ship like the Royal goddamn Navy. And imagine the entire spontaneous outpouring of emotion, complete with cheering and laughing and literal clapping at my TV screen, occurring in the final sixty seconds of the episode, with no prior warning. That’s good television, ladies and gents.
I reviewed last night’s Downton Abbey for the New York Observer. No, I didn’t watch the season as it aired in the UK. No, I don’t know what happens. No, I don’t want to know what happens.
Hidden pregnancies. Children switched at birth. Scandal in a great family. Nothing happening to Lady Edith, her daughter Marigold, and the Drewes—the family generous and unfortunate enough to have tried to help her out of a jam, only to be repaid by emotional devastation and physical displacement—would be out of place on your daytime soap opera of choice, back when you had a lot to choose from. But if you pick apart this central storyline from last night’s Downton Abbey, you’ll find it’s more than the sum of its suds. As is often the case on this show, the middling or superfluous b-plots that drive many viewers mad matter very little compared to the visual, observational, and emotional strength of its finest moments.
This was lost in my dismay over the death of David Bowie, but I reviewed last week’s Downton Abbey for the New York Observer.
With a shorter runtime, a tighter focus, a different remit, Serial Season Two could be a harrowing account of life in captivity. Or it could be an unsparing look at the damage America’s torture of prisoners has done to our moral standing and to the individual lives of its victims, theirs and ours alike. Or it could be an examination of military justice, sentencing, and whether Bergdahl’s prospective punishment fits the crime. Or it could be a look at the lives of Taliban fighters, Haqqani operatives, and the civilians upon whom they rely for support, seen through the window of this one event. Or it could expose the truth, or lack thereof, behind the allegations Bergdahl leveled at his commanders, the allegations that prompted his flight and led to his capture, the allegations the show still hasn’t spent so much as a word detailing. It could be any one of those things. Instead, it’s…this. It’s a weekly slog through an overstuffed tale that simply can’t justify the telling, not in this way. As James Whiting, one of of the Evil Newspaper Editors in The Wire Season Five, put it, “If you leave everything in, soon you’ve got nothing.” In this case it’s actually true.
Like the House of Grantham itself, Downton Abbey begins its sixth and final season in a much diminished state. The show’s fall from grace with American critics, who once discussed it as PBS’s entrée into TV’s New Golden Age, has if anything grown more precipitous over the past year; given the series’ rather aimless fifth season, perhaps that fate is at least somewhat deserved. And while comparing one’s take on a television program to the consensus is usually a mug’s game, for a show as status-obsessed as this one it makes some sort of cosmic sense. Just as Lord Robert, Lady Cora, Lady Mary and the gang must come to terms with their uncertain future when they visit a fire-sale auction at the former home of their aristocratic friend Sir John, we’ve got to figure out where it’s all headed. With only ten or so hours to go, is there still a place in the world for the Crawleys and their loyal servants?
The answer is yes, in the real world, anyway—though it’s only if you ignore the answer in the world of the show itself that this becomes apparent. Downton has repeatedly painted its big-picture theme of change coming to the genteel realm of the English upper class with Thomas Kinkade–like factory precision, to the point where you can satirically sum it up in a single tweet with, like, half the character count left over. On a plot level, too, the series has largely exhausted the youthful energies that drove it during its first several seasons, as the three people who best personified them—Jessica Brown-Findlay’s Lady Sybil, Dan Stevens’s Matthew Crawley, and Allen Leech’s Tom Branson—departed the show, taking much of its storytelling mojo with them.
Fortunately for you and me, we’re watching a TV drama, not writing a middle-school book report. Downton’s exceedingly circumspect front-line report from interbellum England’s class warfare has little to offer a commentariat trained to respond to a hardboiled cliché-fest like Jessica Jones as if it’s Marvel’s answer to Steinem and Davis, but ideally we’d made our peace with its lack of firepower in this regard several seasons ago. The lack of the Mary/Matthew and Sybil/Branson romances is a more difficult obstacle to surmount—this is a soap opera, after all—but not an impossible one. If, as it did in tonight’s season premiere, Downton simply continues its sharp observations of human behavior among fundamentally decent people, as animated by some of the loveliest faces, voices, and cinematography on the tube, it still has much to offer.
I’ll be covering the final season of Downton Abbey for the New York Observer, and I began with a review of last night’s season premiere. I think I write well about this show; maybe you’ll think so too.
Still, the biggest surprise is that defiantly anticlimactic ending. Anyone hoping for a knock-down drag-out fight between Ash and Ruby, let alone him and the forces she controls, is outta luck. (Save it for your Bruce Campbell/Lucy Lawless fanfic.) What you’ve got instead is an exhausted middle-aged man who wants to save his own ass, keep his friends from getting killed, and give up the fight to go live the good life down in Jacksonville. Ruby talks a good game, claiming her goal isn’t the apocalypse but its opposite — an orderly world in which evil coexists with good under her command. That’s part of why Ash takes the deal, sure. But the real reason goes back to what Kelly said about him last episode: He always takes the easy way out if given the chance.
Maybe that’s what explains the character’s enduring appeal. Campbell, of course, is Exhibits A, B, and C in the case of Evil Dead’s lasting legacy. But Ash isn’t just the cartoon character he comes across as. He often makes decisions that aren’t just stupid, but shitty — something action-horror-comedy hybrid heroes are rarely permitted. His carelessness with the Necronomicon is what got everyone into this mess, and his willingness to fob it off on anyone, even Ruby, appears to have brought on Armageddon. In the end, he saves his friends and hightails it out of there, leaving the entire world to its fate; he gets to the finish line and immediately hooks left. It’s not how heroes, even funny ones, are supposed to act. It’s not how stories like this are supposed to work. But Ash vs. Evil Dead never claimed that it would play by the rules. It’s too crazy and confident to be anything but its own groovy self.
When you talk about what makes a TV series succeed or fail, you typically want to avoid repeating the same points over and over. Who wants to sound like a broken record, right? Tell that to John Lennon and Yoko Ono when they made “Revolution 9″ — and if repetition is good enough for the Beatles, it’s good enough for us, and for Ash vs. Evil Dead. The penultimate episode of the show’s first season — “Bound in the Flesh” — gets where it’s going by repeating the same trick it’s pulled since the pilot: taking the gore and nastiness as far as it can, then taking them one step beyond. Like that creepy voice saying “Number nine … number nine …” over and over, it works.