Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Three, Episode One: “EST Men”

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

However you slice it, The Americans dodged the [prestige-drama "wife problem"] bullet. The show stars a wife who not only doesn’t oppose her husband’s awful antics, she leads the charge. Elizabeth Jennings isn’t Philip’s suspicious sweetheart or nagging conscience, she’s his partner in crime. Indeed, actor Keri Russell receives top billing over Matthew Rhys, and her character’s ideological fervor outstrips his; in the series’ pilot, he’s ready to turn himself in and defect, while she wants to continue the mission. Comrades the Jennings may be, but Elizabeth is first among equals, and The Americans is the story of her antiheroism above all.

But what does that amount to, exactly? For the purposes of that discussion, let’s put aside the tonally broader, plot-hole-ridden first season. Everything the show is interested in — spy-thriller action and suspense; the uncomfortable eroticism of the Jennings’ undercover work; secondary characters like FBI Agent Stan Beeman, the Soviet agents of the Rezidentura, and the Jennings’ kids; the steely, wiry physicality of Russell and Rhys that makes their characters so convincingly commanding even buried under pounds of big glasses, bad wigs, and spirit gum — got tighter and sharper in Season Two, to the point where few of the first season’s flaws remained.

With one major exception, that is: All the terrible things that Elizabeth and Philip do, the show acts as though they’re being done to them, not by them, and that’s a problem. The anhedonia of Don Draper, the depressive rages of Tony Soprano, and the world-collapsing panic of Walter White are all gut-wrenching to behold, but their shows come across a lot more clear-eyed about the pain they inflict trumping their own. By contrast, even though Elizabeth and Philip are basically always miserable, never seeming to take any pleasure at all from what they do or the skill with which they do it, we’re rarely asked to linger on the suffering they cause except insofar as how hard it is for them to live with it. (This is where the lack of a long-suffering spouse of whatever gender hurts the show structurally.)

If this moral dynamic sounds familiar, that means you’ve been reading your pop-culture thinkpieces over the past few weeks. If Mr. and Mrs. Jennings worked for the USA during the Iraq War instead of the USSR during the Cold War, we’d basically be talking about American Sniper, which has been held up as an inspiring exploration of how hard it must have been for a man to kill for his country. The people who got killed had it a lot harder, you know? And that’s true whether your flag is red white and blue or red and yellow. Empathy is valuable, but it must be tempered with moral clarity; the plight of a murderer pales in comparison to the plight of the murdered. Paradoxically, it’s by making Philip and Elizabeth so torn up by their awful vocation that its real awfulness is obscured.

I reviewed the season premiere of The Americans, and really The Americans generally, for the New York Observer. Very excited to be covering the show this season.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Eight: School’s Out

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Call it heartbreaking. Call it breathtaking. Call it brutal. But don’t call The Wire’s fourth season tragic. This final stretch of episodes, surely what most people think of when they call The Wire the greatest show of all time, contains many of its most agonizing moments, its most crushing defeats. But tragedy implies inevitability. What makes this the hardest, greatest part of The Wire to watch is that there was nothing inevitable about any of it. If people had tried harder, politicked less, cared more, the ruined lives of the series’ school-based season could have been saved.

In the latest installment of my weekly rewatch/review column The Wire Wednesdays at the New York Observer, I cover the final seven episodes of Season Four, one of the best stretches of television ever to air.

“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 13: “Welcome Back, Jim Gordon”

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

Let us now sing the praises of no man’s lands. “Welcome Back, Jim Gordon,” tonight’s episode of Gotham, features two brief scenes shot in semi-subterranean nether-regions, places that exist solely as way-stations between the places you actually want to go. In the first, anonymous goons in the employ of Don Falcone wheel a gurney with an unseen, unknown passenger through an equally unfamiliar — and underlit — abandoned warehouse-cum-torture laboratory of a mob Mengele named Bob.

In the second, recently reinstated Detective Jim Gordon chases a corrupt cop called Delaware down into the GCPD’s parking garage, cuffing him on the hood of his car and rifling through his trunk for contraband. Cold blue daylight shines down through grates in the ceiling while vertically mounted florescents on every column radiate a sickly green. The settings may not be unique, especially in dark genre fare, but they’re beautifully visualized nonetheless — sprawling yet claustrophobic, creepy and lovely to look at.

If emphasizing the lighting and set dressing in a couple of throwaway sequences gives the impression that there’s not much else worth praising here…well, yeah, pretty much. Corruption within the Gotham City Police Department has driven the story of some of the best Batman comics of all time, from Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One to Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Michael Lark’s Gotham Central, two obvious influences on the show. Yet the topic’s handling here is as subtle as the character’s countless fists to each other’s face.

I reviewed tonight’s Gotham for Rolling Stone. It was Gotham, alright.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Four

Monday, January 26th, 2015

In an episode where Lord Robert gets trolled to the point of apoplexy at the dinner table, Thomas attempts to chemically castrate himself, and Lady Mary groans “ohhhh, yummy” at a fashion show, standing out as the single craziest thing to happen takes some doing. So let’s hear it for Lord Tony Gillingham, whose berserk reaction to Mary’s attempt to break up with him — in Seinfeldian fashion, he basically refuses to be dumped — sends him skyrocketing to the top of the Downton Abbey holy-shit list. It’s not the worst thing ever to happen to Lady Mary’s love life, but it may be the most topically relevant, revealing double standards about male and female sexuality that persist to this day.

Tony’s steadfast refusal to take Lady Mary’s “no” for an answer is based on his conviction that no lady of Mary’s station could possibly sleep with a man she hadn’t intended to spend the rest of her life with. Nevermind that the stated purpose of their sexual exploration was to determine whether or not spending the rest of their lives together was a good idea in the first place! No, Lord Gillingham has retconned their liaison into a fait accompli, a preemptive confirmation of love everlasting. If Lady Mary believes otherwise, well, she’d better just think a little harder, huh?

The implied threat, of course, is that if Lady Mary really were speaking the truth of her heart now — if she slept with a guy and subsequently decided to dump him — then she’s no lady at all, and therefore her confidences, and her reputation, are undeserving of Lord Tony’s further protection. “I won’t be tarnished again,” she said last week, only to discover now that the greatest threat along those lines is the guy she said it to. Her predicament is painfully reminiscent of any number of recent real-world incidents: the theft and leak of nude photos from a host of female celebrities, the use of private information to intimidate feminist video game critics by the Gamergate movement, the attempts to expose the identity of the woman at the heart of the UVA rape story. When intimacy and privacy are weaponized, women bear the brunt of the impact.

I reviewed last night’s Downton Abbey for the New York Observer. I love this show, man.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Seven: Season Four’s School Spirit

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

The best line from The Wire is also, not coincidentally, its bleakest. It comes from the lollipop-sweetened mouth of Marlo Stanfield, who during the first half of Season Four handles surveillance cameras, high-stakes poker, inter-gang rivalries, and gunpoint stickups like he’s got icewater in his veins, but who cannot abide the backtalk of a lowly convenience-store security guard. The guard tries to explain to Marlo — who’d knowingly stolen candy in full view of the guy just to fuck with him — that even though such behavior is trivial, and even though he wouldn’t dare truly challenge Marlo over it, it strips him of what little dignity his dreary dayjob affords him. Marlo, his arrogance filling his wide eyes with something that approximates life, responds with one repeated phrase: “You want it to be one way.” When the guard finally backs down, Marlo delivers the punchline: “But it’s the other way.” Marlo keeps his lollipops. The guard loses his life. You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.

This fatalistic credo (fatal for the people on the wrong side of it, anyway) fits The Wire to a tee, and never more so than in Season Four. How could a season dedicated in large part to the American education and electoral systems be about anything but the clash between great expectations and horrorshow reality? But the line could just as easily apply to the show’s decision, once again, to push its main characters to the side in favor of these new worlds. The Barksdale outfit has been shut down; McNulty, Daniels, and Carver are happily working the Western District; Kima and Lester join Homicide after the Major Case Unit is destroyed from within by the bosses. All of them are marginalized to make room for Marlo, the Mayor, and middle-schoolers. And just as in Season Two, it pays off spectacularly.

So much of the credit must go to the kids at the center of the school storyline: Randy, a friendly and ambitious foster kid whose side hustles gets him into trouble; Namond, the class-clown son of imprisoned Barksdale soldier Wee-Bey (whose wife, Namond’s mother, is the worst wife character on the show yet, which is saying something); Duquan, the weirdo of the group, a smart, strange kid marginalized by the extreme poverty of his junkie parents; and Michael, whose quiet self-confidence draws people to him even as he tries to hide a sexual secret. The Wire has the best track record with child actors this side of Game of Thrones, and the foursome to whom it awards the lion’s share of screentime this season (Maestro Harrell, Julito McCullum, Jermaine Crawford, and future R&B star Tristan “Mack” Wilds) are all as good as it gets. They’re so easy and enjoyable to watch as they navigate new additions to their world, from Marlo’s crew to their new teacher, former cop Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski, that the absence of McNulty and Daniels barely registers. (Both are deep in domestic bliss with their former Major Case colleagues Beadie Russell and Ronnie Pearlman respectively.) That’s without even considering the school setting, which like the docks and unions of Season Two has the irresistible aura of a once vital thing slowly dying.

I reviewed the first six episodes of The Wire Season Four for the New York Observer. “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way” is one of the best things ever aired on television.

“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 12: “What the Little Bird Told Him”

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Over in the mob-war storyline, Fish Mooney finally makes her move against Don Falcone by staging a kidnapping of Liza, her mole in the boss’s inner circle. “I didn’t think it was going to be you,” Falcone tells Fish when she makes contact. After playing dumb for 15 seconds, she admits the plot is hers. His reply? “Of course it is. How long have I known you? You’re the smart one in the family, didn’t I always say so?” So he didn’t think Fish would betray him, but he’s known her so long and admired her intelligence so much that “of course” he knew she betrayed him? These lines come less than a minute apart in the same conversation!

I reviewed this week’s atrociously written episode of Gotham for Rolling Stone. Do stick around for the comments; angry Gotham fans are easily the most adorable angry TV fans.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Three

Monday, January 19th, 2015

[Warning: The following statement is NSFWR (Not Safe For White Russians); please escort any and all refugees from the Revolution out of the drawing room before continuing.]

If I had to describe Lady Mary Crawley’s sex life in a sentence, I’d turn to Karl Marx. History repeats itself, he warned us, first as tragedy, then as farce. How better to describe Mary’s dangerous liaisons? The first, with the dashing Turkish attaché Kemal Pamuk back in the pilot episode, ended in death and disgrace. The second, with eager-beaver suitor Lord Tony Gillingham in tonight’s episode, turns out to be a source of dirty jokes and awkward pauses, but little else.

That’s undoubtedly disappointing for Mary, and for any of us hoping for some genuine heat emanating from her sexy skullduggery with Tony. But the comedy was cute, and that counts for something. Tony’s groan-worthy response to Lady Mary’s room-service order — “Well, you’ve worked up a big appetite” — is exactly the kind of try-hard, corny crack you might make when you’re just starting to test the boundaries of newfound intimacy. Gillingham recovers well enough, it must be said, responding to Mary’s weary “I can’t bear vulgar jokes” by telling her “I’ll make note of that. I’ve made note of everything.” But given the grimace with which Mary greets him several days later when he pays an unexpected visit to her at Downton, it seems unlikely he’ll get the chance to put his research to any use.

“I can’t bear vulgar jokes”? Speak for yourself, Lady Mary! I reviewed last night’s Downton Abbey for the New York Observer.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Six: The “Good Problems” of Season Three’s Final Episodes

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015


The end of Stringer — his misguided ambitions, his misplaced faith in his ability to outfox experienced white-collar criminals like Clay Davis, his successful but short-lived attempt to overhaul Baltimore’s drug trade into something more cooperative and less lethal, his tasteful interior decorating — at the points of Omar’s shotgun and Brother Mouzone’s Walther PPK provided the season’s climax. But his story had no shortage of competitors in its headlong rush to the finish line. Lacking the tragedy that the deaths of Wallace and Frank Sobotka provided its predecessors, it compensated by setting up a whole series of ticking time-bomb scenarios and counting them down one on top of the other. Thanks to Avon’s betrayal, Mouzone and Omar got to String first, but Daniels, McNulty, Kima and company were only steps behind, while his parallel plot to rat Avon out to the cops was nearing completion just as quickly. Even as the police prepped to pinch Avon, his own men were moving into place to take down his rival Marlo Stanfield. It felt, marvelously and terrifyingly, like any fucking thing could happen at any fucking moment.

Elsewhere, in the social-experiment storyline centered on Bunny Colvin’s de facto decriminalization of drugs in “Hamsterdam,” a similar race was on. A whole slew of characters — Bunny, his loyalists like Carver, rebellious troops like Herc and gung-ho Travis Bickle wannabe Colicchio, the press, the brass, the Mayor, and the increasingly shifty politician Tommy Carcetti — ran neck and neck to determine the final fate of the free zones. In that case, only a series of bad decisions led to the race’s unhappy resolution: Commissioner Burrell thought Mayor Royce was delaying the shut-down in order to more securely fuck him, when in fact Royce was inches away from exporting the initiative’s successes citywide; acting on Burrell’s faulty intel, Carcetti chose to hang Colvin out to dry and hang it on the Mayor for political advantage. Given The Wire’s thesis that the system is irrevocably fucked — a thesis on evidence in the endemic brutality and corner-cutting displayed by even the most heroic cops, which with post-2014 hindsight is even more uncomfortable to contemplate than Simon likely intended it to appear at the time — it couldn’t have gone down any other way. But such is the skill of the show that it sure as shit felt like it could have.

I reviewed the final six episodes of The Wire Season Three for the New York Observer.

The 50 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the ’70s

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

18. ‘THX 1138’ (1971)

As visually and sonically stunning as anything George Lucas would later do in a galaxy far far away, his future-fascistic nightmare is a pure product of the decade’s New Hollywood renaissance, exploring sex, drugs, mind-numbing television, governmental malfeasance, and both the necessity and futility of rebellion. Robert Duvall is quietly tremendous as the movie’s equivalent of 1984‘s Winston Smith. It’s not just a film, it’s a jumping-off point for an alternate universe in which George Lucas’s body of work veers closer to Sixties cerebral sci-fi than Thirties serials.

“What’s wrong?” I contributed a couple of items to Rolling Stone’s list of the 50 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the ’70s.

Comics Time: Worst Behavior

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

How do you take something as complex and confounding as the most tumultuous time in a person’s adult life and make a concise and compelling short story out of it? Annie Mok’s solution: Echo the tumult. In as-below-so-above fashion, Worst Behavior, an illustrated memoir for the “Dedication”-themed January issue of the online magazine Rookie, utilizes a hybrid format to describe and analyze a three-year period during which a host of issues that by rights would be overwhelming individually pulled Mok’s life in a dizzying number of directions. She uses prose, comics, illustration, hand lettering, sampled/disassembled/reassembled passages from her previous work, and quotes from the artists who’ve inspired her along the way to harness that onslaught in an act of creative judo, simultaneously communicating its power and demonstrating her artistic, emotional, and intellectual ability to best it.

I reviewed Worst Behavior by Annie Mok for The Comics Journal.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Two

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

God’s in his heaven, the King’s on the wireless, and the thirst is real for Lady Mary Crawley. Yes, in one of Downton Abbey’s most delightful developments ever, Mary has embarked on a secret sex safari with dashing Lord Tony Gillingham, determined to determine their sexual compatibility before tying the knot. So much of the business of tonight’s episode was about preparing for this clandestine fuckfest — ordering Anna to purchase birth control, rebuffing past suitor Mr. Blake, figuring out which clothes to pack based on whether they can be removed by a revved-up gentleman instead of an expert lady’s maid — that it might as well have been called Down-Low Abbey instead.

Which is great! I mean, who’d have thought that Julian Fellowes, Tory member of the House of Lords, would craft arguably TV’s most compellingly, uniquely sexual character, and a woman to boot? Downton never uses Lady Mary’s sexuality to make her a figure of ridicule or of menace, never presents her desire as foolhardy or grotesque, never surplus or insufficient to the needs of some male counterpart. She remains herself — charming, cutting, a bit aloof, serious enough about her own happiness not to make it subservient to anyone else’s — whether in the bedroom or out of it. This can be awfully, awfully sexy, as self-confidence often is: When Anna suggested choosing only certain dresses for the trip “so you can take them on and off without my help” and Mary responded “Well, I’ll have his help,” I all but collapsed onto my fainting couch. But it can make for some terrific, character-revealing comedy too, as when she tells Mr. Blake she’s only recently emerged from the “mist” that surrounded her following Matthew’s death: “And the mist is clearing around the lithe and supple figure of Tony Gillingham,” he deadpans. “Maybe,” she shrugs, completely indifferent to how this level of indifference looks. She likes Tony, she’s planning a getaway specifically to have sex with Tony, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Few women on TV (outside of the surprisingly sophisticated Broad City, of all things) are afforded that kind of emotional freedom.

I reviewed this week’s episode of Downton Abbey for the New York Observer. It’s a good show!

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Five: “F— the Bosses”

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

The chair recognizes Stringer Bell. What to make of this consigliere turned kingpin turned real-estate mogul and gangster parliamentarian? In Season Three, The Wire posits String as an honest-to-god reformer, amid a cast of characters consumed with the idea, from ambitious politician Tommy Carcetti to conscience-stricken cop Bunny Colvin. And a reformer he is, to a point. Stringer correctly sees that it’s violence, not drugs, that attracts police attention to the drug trade, and he works to acquire the skills necessary to keep product flowing without the accompanying tide of blood. Authorial intent is usually for suckers, but on a show as editorially driven as this one, creator David Simon must be given the floor, and his repeated characterization of String as a force for positive change in the drug game during interviews and essays counts are borne out by how the show plays out.

This doesn’t mean the show lets Stringer off the hook, necessarily. He’s clearly shown to be naive in his belief that a creature like Marlo Stanfield can be massaged into compliance, his skullduggery with D’Angelo and Donette is as reprehensible as anything any prestige-drama antihero has ever gotten up to, the disconnect between his commanding presence in the gang and his earnest-schoolboy appearances in community college is weirdly adorable and a bit pathetic, and his attempts to force the hoppers and dealers in his employ to play by Robert’s Rules are played for some of the biggest laughs in the series. (And in this season, with Carver’s threat to beat a suspect “harder than you beat your own dick” and a murder mix-up involving the murder of a dog instead of “my dawg,” that’s saying something.)

But those laughs come at the expense of the underlings, not String, and that’s where the show goes wrong. Putting the “organized” in “organized crime” is not without precedent — hey, it worked pretty well for Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky! — but one look at either the goofs and goons below him or the dyed-in-the-wool warlord above him, Avon Barksdale, should have been enough to show String his plan is doomed to failure. Can you imagine Tony Soprano saying “The chair recognizes Paulie Walnuts?” without it coming across as transparently ridiculous? I can’t, and neither could David Chase — hence his creation of characters like the pretentious malaprop factory Little Carmine Lupertazzi, or the Gladiator-quoting Ralphie Cifaretto, who exist to embody and satirize those delusions of grandeur. (Little Carmine was always right, as it turned out, but that would have been a lot clearer if he wasn’t trying to sound like a grand fucking statesman.) Yes, Poot’s supposed to sound silly when he says “Do the chair know we gonna look like some punk-ass bitches out there?”, but String’s just as silly for expecting anything else.

My weekly Wire rewatch/recap column for the New York Observer returns with a look at the first half of Season Three and its many bad bosses.

“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eleven: “Rogues’ Gallery”

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

Movies, video games, toys, movies based on video games based on toys: The Bat-Signal has cast the Dark Knight’s shadow on such an enormous portion of the pop-culture landscape that it’s now possible for a generation of Bat-fans to never once crack the cover of a single comic book. And now that Gotham exists, they really don’t need to. Episodes like tonight’s return from winter break — “Rogues’ Gallery” — recreate the experience of reading a mediocre Bat-book so perfectly that they all but feel plucked from a back-issue bin at a Comic-Con dealer’s table. The isolated moments of zany inspiration and compelling atmospherics, surrounded by scene after scene of ham-fisted character work, inert dialogue, and rehashed crime/cop/horror clichés — it’s not a great deal, but at least Gotham is free with your broadcast package, and Senator Clay Davis makes a cameo.

Guess who’s officially covering Gotham for Rolling Stone now?

They said you were hot stuff: on the “Baby’s On Fire” sequence from Velvet Goldmine

Monday, January 5th, 2015

I Was a Teenage Velvet Goldmine Skeptic. Not quite teenage, I suppose — I’d already turned 20 by the time of the film’s autumn 1998 release — but my musical mindset was still adolescent in essence. Precariously poised between poseurs and mainstream morons, I believed, there existed a sweet spot of authentically alternative art, of real rock and roll rebellion. This was a place you could live, provided you worked relentlessly to refine your taste to its essentials, and then never, ever fucking budged. One and a half post-poptimism decades later I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how needlessly dreary and exhausting an approach this is, but my own Pauline conversion was still a few years in the future. That road to pop-cultural Damascus had many side streets. But if you were to retrace the route — starting with My First Pop Divas Kylie and Beyoncé, working back through electroclash and the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City soundtracks, traversing all the ‘80s pop and ‘70s rock I’d never before gone near, and converging at David Bowie, the artist whose breathless, liberating adoption and deletion of influences and imagery at opened up my avenues to all of the above — the road would begin with a chance late-night Cinemax channel flip and my second encounter with Todd Haynes’s glam fantasia Velvet Goldmine. It’s no exaggeration to say that that viewing changed my life. The only thing it had in common with my first viewing of the film — a head-scratching, yawn-suppressing affair in the campus art-house during its brief bomb of a theatrical run, at which I pronounced it an overinflated, pointlessly complex dud that committed the cardinal sin of not rocking hard enough — was this: I loved the “Baby’s On Fire” sequence, the movie’s centerpiece, its beating heart, its throbbing loins.

Famously, Velvet Goldmine is to David Bowie what Citizen Kane (from which it stole its structure) is to William Randolph Hearst. To use a more recent example, and a more accurate one given how both films center a fictional, emotionally overwhelming relationship between two men, it is to Bowie what The Master is to L. Ron Hubbard. In place of Joaquin Phoenix’s giggling alcoholic damage case, VG puts forward Ewan MacGregor’s American rock’n’roll animal Curt Wild as the foil to its central celebrity stand-in, Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s Brian Slade. Though primarily an Iggy Pop manqué, Wild will, throughout the course of the movie, incorporate elements of Lou Reed’s biography, Oscar Wilde’s name, Kurt Cobain’s name andlooks, and Bowie’s own post-glam Berlin period. The moniker for Meyers’s Bowie figure similarly references fellow glitter luminaries Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, and the band Slade; if we were to pick apart “Maxwell Demon and the Venus in Furs,” Brian’s alien-messiah persona and his house band, we’d be here all night.

This Russian nesting-doll layering of references to icons of rock, film, and literature is an annotator’s dream, to be sure. But more importantly, it enables Haynes to make a movie not about Bowie, Iggy, and glam, but about the idea of them, doing so by constructing them from a continuum of related ideas. Velvet Goldmine is about artifice as art and fandom as fantasy, and a love letter to the artists who introduced a young Haynes to these sensations as he came to terms with life as a young gay man. The “Baby’s On Fire” sequence is where that letter gets sealed with a kiss.

I wrote about my favorite sequence from one of my favorite movies, the Velvet Goldmine montage sequence scored by Jonathan Rhys Meyers/Venus in Furs cover of Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire,” for One Week One Band’s special soundtrack spectacular.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Five, Episode One

Monday, January 5th, 2015

Thomas Barrow reflects an essential truth about human nature, one virtually unreported on TV today: People who are right bastards to one person can be dear, true friends to another, and never the twain shall meet. Normally, morally “complex” characters are played like, I dunno, the asshole sister Princess Amber from the Disney Junior cartoon Sofia the First: kind of a jerk most of the time, but capable of growth and learning, and eventually able to squeeze out an apology and repayment to people they’ve wronged. While this beats the white hat/black hat model of old-school Hollywood fairy tales, it still relies on an emotional and ethical flattening in which people’s behavior is more or less constant no matter who they interact with.

Thomas Barrow is different. Here’s a guy who’s clearly capable of actual, sincere friendship. He got along with his ex-BFF O’Brien for years, and that kind of closeness requires more than just mutual scheming. Now, he’s a valued buddy and advisor to James, whose trust and friendship he won despite the friendship’s origin in Thomas’s unrequited romantic interest in the guy — an interest, moreover, that Thomas appears to have truly put aside, instead being happy just to be close to a dude he likes and respects.

Yet even as he coaches Jimmy through his tryst with the good Lady Anstruther (played by Anna Chancellor, unforgettably and unfairly dubbed “Duckface” in Four Weddings and a Funeral), Thomas is an unbearable bully to Baxter, the ladies’ maid whose employment at Downton he engineered in order to have a spy he could blackmail into compliance. He’s got neither patience nor pity for her, not even when she blows up his scheme by revealing her criminal record to Lady Cora before he can narc on her. The Thomas we see with Baxter and the Thomas we see with James are like two different men.

I don’t know about you, but that maps to my life way better than I feel comfortable admitting. I’d love to be a well-rounded person at all times, evaluating everyone with whom I come into contact on a fair and impartial basis, gradually overcoming my biases and jealousies and petty rivalries; I’d also love to have a healing factor and adamantium claws like Wolverine, and neither scenario is particularly likely. No, it’s far more frequently the case that I’m kind, caring, and careful around people I like, and a nasty little shitbird to people I loathe. You can blast Downton for its soap-opera plots and aristocratic airs all you like, but when was the last time you saw a show reflect this basic reality of human nature?

I’m psyched to be covering Downton Abbey for the New York Observer this season! I started out by reviewing tonight’s season premiere.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Four: “Your Way—It Won’t Work”

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Along with leftovers and late-arriving relatives, The Wire in HD showed up the day after Christmas, in all its cable-marathonable, HBOGo-bingeable glory. And despite its debut being the impetus and inspiration of this column, I really hadn’t planned on talking about it at all. The high-def remastering is one thing, a fine thing, and a legion of cinephiles could, and no doubt have, walk any interested reader through notable changes screenshot comparison by screenshot comparison. But the new aspect ratio — a flatscreen-friendly 16:9 for a show shot in good old-fashioned boob-tube 4:3 — brought out the McNulty in me. I had to fuckin’ say something.

It turns out that The Wire expanded for widescreen screens looks exactly as bad as widescreen films look cropped for square screens. You are very clearly seeing a stretched-out fraction of the original image, and it looks wrong. I kept instinctively searching for a remote control to resize the picture. Sure, David Simon helped supervise the reformatting, so it’s unlikely you’ll suddenly see lighting rigs and crew members cluttering up the edges of the image as you have in less carefully prepared remasters. And yeah, it’s the kind of thing you get used to, just like generations of viewers got used to seeing movies chopped and cropped whenever they switched on their TV or popped a tape in their VCR. But you shouldn’t have to get used to a deliberately fucked-with version of a show as thoughtfully constructed as this. The industry-wide switch to widescreen TVs was a victory for cinematic sanity — now we’re gonna go nuts again in the opposite direction? I kiiiiiiiinda think everyone involved in this decision should be ashamed of themselves.

Or I would, if The Wire Season Two hadn’t made a convincing case that America is a nation beyond shame. Season One established The Wire’s interest in exploring the system’s resistance to change, but that was only part of the story. In its second half, Season Two argues the system can change, but only in one direction: whichever way the already powerful want it to go. The economy can mutate, shedding union jobs like a snake sheds skin, replacing derelict ports and graineries with high-priced condominiums. The law can mutate, prioritizing post-9/11 terror panic at the direct expense of catching organized-crime outfits already living, working, and killing here in the homeland; or busting unions on corruption charges instead of pursuing the kingpins who corrupted them in the first place.

My final piece of the year is the latest installment of The Wire Wednesdays, my weekly Wire rewatch/review column for the New York Observer. This week I’m looking at the second half of Season Two (and complaining about the reformatted remastered HD edition of the show).

On “objective criticism”

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

dagsg asked: Do you have any opinion why, when some piece of art (e.g. GoT) might appear to be have dodgy or questionable elements (or changes in many cases) in closer inspection, modern fandoms almost always suspect malevolence behind it? Instead of explaining it with usually more plausible ignorance and/or stupidity (which also might sound a bit harsh in some cases).

I’ve written about this before, I know, and I’m sure more articulately than I’m about to, but: In contemporary criticism of art, both professional and fandom-based, several prevalent approaches that on the surface appear to have little in common are all methods of doing the same thing, which is turning the evaluation of the work, which in the case of both the evaluation and the work is something inherently subjective and complex and capable of containing multiple contradictory messages and meanings, into something objective and simple.

“Purists” turn to fidelity to the source material. “Social justice warriors,” whether that term is being externally applied as a pejorative or self-applied as a tongue-in-cheek but proud descriptor of priorities (and I would consider myself the latter; it’s one of the reasons I started this tumblr years ago and started writing about this material in this way), as well as their reactionary opponents, apply sociopolitical metrics. Theory-mongers focus on “solving” art by teasing out clues and connections to unearth hidden truths or predict a work’s conclusion. Stans, shippers, even the “bad fans” of antiheroic characters so frequently lamented by film and TV critics who find them in the comment threads and twitter exchanges resulting from their reviews, prioritize the treatment of their favorite characters and relationships.

But in each case, the end result is a way to feel fairly to totally confident that art can be right or wrong; that the artists who make it, to speak to your question directly, can be right or wrong and condemned or praised; and that you, as a critic, can be right or wrong about that art and that artist in turn. Each approach has its legitimate benefits — in particular I believe that politics are a part of all art and MUST be addressed and considered — but each approach is ultimately reductive and contrary to what I understand art and criticism to be if no further steps to interrogate the work and one’s feelings about it are taken. Art is big and messy. Making it, consuming it, writing about it — these are inherently risky propositions. The risk should be embraced if we are to do anything worthwhile.

“The Comeback” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Eight: “Valerie Gets What She Really Wants”

Monday, December 29th, 2014

“In science, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed.”—“Observer effect (physics),” Wikipedia

It took a solid minute, at one point, for my brain to catch up with The Comeback last night, for the observer to understand the observed. It wasn’t Valerie Cherish’s superstar costar Juna’s confession of hurt feelings or her other superstar costar Chris’s profession of lust that did it. It wasn’t blood flowing from her best friend Mickey’s nose or shit gushing from Valerie’s pipes. It wasn’t the red carpet or the Emmys themselves. It was the almost physically disorienting sight of Valerie Cherish, off-camera.

When Valerie flees the award ceremony in a frantic attempt to contact her estranged husband Mark about Mickey’s rapidly deteriorating health, she leaves Jane’s camera crew behind. By rights, that should be the end of the episode right there. Everything we’ve seen during both seasons of The Comeback, after all, has technically been footage shot for one of its many shows-within-a-show: I’m It, Room and Bored, The Comeback, Seeing Red, The Assassination of Valerie Cherish, The Talk, Tonight Show, even The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. But when Valerie passes through the doors of the auditorium and out of the sight of the camera eye, there’s no Sopranos-style crash cut to black. Valerie’s still there, bathed in the warmth of film instead of the handheld coldness of digital. Suddenly, given the limitations imposed on every single shot in the series so far, we’re seeing something that should be impossible to see. The reality show is over—this is real.

The Comeback has never shied away from metacommentary, duh, but this is some next-level, Dorothy stepping into a Technicolor dreamworld and realizing she’s not in Kansas anymore shit, a use of the medium itself to convey the message. In a way, it’s also an internal callback to the loathsome drug-dream fantasy sequences central to Seeing Red, writer Pauly G.’s clumsy attempt to articulate his emotional reality by cutting away from reality-reality. But it reminded me of nothing so much as the marvelous magic-realist ending of Hal Ashby’s Being There: Lisa Kudrow’s Valerie Cherish standing in for Peter Sellers’s Chauncey Gardener, umbrella in hand, striding through the water and doing the impossible. To say it was the single strongest moment in a TV comedy in 2014 would be to imply anything else even came close.

And yet. Something about “Valerie Gets What She Really Wants,” the finale for The Comeback’s second season and, I assume, The Comeback period, struck me as less than magical: To get what she really wants, Valerie makes a sacrifice no one else is asked to make.

I reviewed the season finale of The Comeback for the New York Observer. I had very mixed feelings!

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Three: “We Ain’t Back in the Day”

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

By the time the opening credits finish rolling on the The Wire’s second season premiere, you’re watching a different show than you were when the closing credits finished rolling on the first season finale. Jimmy McNulty, system-bucking enemy-making super-detective, has been reduced to riding a boat in the Marine Unit, but that sorry spectacle is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. For one thing, there’s actual ice to contend with: The summer heat has been replaced by gray midwinter chil and clouds of frosted breath. The plummeting temperature feels reflected in the credits themselves: The Blind Boys of Alabama’s rollicking roadhouse gospel version of “Way Down in the Hole” has been replaced by the delirium-tremens minimalism of Tom Waits’ art-rock original, and its second verse’s references to Satan (“he’s got the fire and the fury at his command”) are a damn sight more menacing than the swapped-in third verse present during Season One, with its uplifting praise of “Jesus’ mighty sword.” And while the imagery is still a montage of tight close-ups on transactional hand gestures and inscrutable electronic surveillance mechanisms, the jittery jump-cuts between them are largely phased out in favor of slower, cooler dissolves. And we haven’t even touched the radically different waterside setting for much of that imagery — or the whole new set of cast names slapped atop it. The post-credits epigraph, from a bit character called Little Big Roy, sums it up: Whatever The Wire is now, “Ain’t never gonna be what it was.”

It turns out that it was literally impossible to understand the nature The Wire until its second season. It wasn’t until then, when it left the West Side projects behind to head for the docks and introduce a whole new cast of criminals and civilians with blue collars and white skin, that it truly became itself. That’s different from shows that simply got sharper, even dramatically so, as they went along — the example everyone points to for this kind of thing is “College,” the landmark fifth episode of The Sopranos’ first season, which juxtaposed Tony’s family life and Family life with unsparing clarity as he stalked and murdered an informant while on a road trip with his college-bound daughter. As I’ve said before, The Wire, by contrast, had its tone and pacing down pat in the pilot. What it didn’t have — what it couldn’t have, until it did an entire season’s worth of establishing itself in one particular setting — was the unprecedented shifting and widening of scope that would come to characterize it from season to season.

Celebrate this festive season with my review of the first six episodes of The Wire Season Two for my weekly column in the New York Observer, The Wire Wednesdays. Santa Sobotka is coming to town.

Critics’ Quarrel: Debating the End of “The Affair”

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

My love for The Affair is passionate and tempestuous and closely guarded, an embarrassingly thematically-appropriate way to love The Affair. It’s the show I’m most likely to tweet about rhapsodically at two in the morning after a few drinks, marveling at its sharp sexiness and sophistication as if I’m impetuously blurting out a secret to my fellow night-owls and barflies. These tweets are often shot through with bafflement and contempt for the show’s detractors: Why, goddammit why, does no one love The Affair like I do?Don’t they know how good they could have it? I feel like I’ve discovered the best thing in the world and it’s a thing only I can see.

Which is an exaggeration, of course, but only slightly. Even many of the show’s initial, vocal supporters appear to have cooled on the bifurcated saga of Noah Holloway and Alison Lockhart; on HitFix’s annual critics’ poll it ranked a lowly 24th, below such scintillating fare as The Walking Dead, Gotham, and season four of Homeland. At moments like this, I worry that TV criticism’s sensible refusal to conflate “serious” with good may have become a reflexive zeal to conflate “serious” with “bad.”

But the worry is slight compared to my deep, deep delight in the show itself, which is one of the best on television. It’s just so smart, and so specific, about so many things that are hard for TV to do without getting all, you know, teevee about them.

The season finale of The Affair aired last night, so me and my fellow critic Eric Thurm got all he-said/he-said about it and debated the show for the New York Observer.