Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Nine: “Aporia”

June 16, 2017

I’ve enjoyed season three of Fargo so much for so many reasons that I’ve barely had the time or inclination to comment on the few things that haven’t quite clicked. Now’s as good a time as any, since the clicking has finally occurred. Basically, Ewan McGregor’s performance(s) have been one of the season’s few weak links. He’s never been bad as either Emmit or Ray Stussy; I don’t think he has it in him to deliver a bad performance straight-up. But I’ve gotten the sense from time to time of an actor clinging to his wigs as a sort of life raft, the only way he can navigate the choppy waters of playing two superficially similar but very different characters, who look alike, in an accent completely alien from his own. (He’s not as bad as, say, Peter Dinklage trying to be posh, but the Scottish texture of McGregor’s voice is hard for him to disguise completely when he plays American, as viewers—or in my case, triple-digit re-viewers—of his work in Velvet Goldmine could tell you.)

There were already signs that this was ending in the last couple of episodes. Think of the way he ranted and raved about the travails of the One Percent during his lunch meeting with Mrs. Goldfarb after he accidentally killed his brother, a convincingly inappropriate and desperate coping mechanism. Or the cast of his face as he waved down to Sy Feltz for what he may well have known was their last moment of genuine human connection. Or his guilt-stricken panic when Nikki and Wrench began taunting him with the detritus of he and his brother’s history. The accent is the accent, but underneath a person was emerging.

In this week’s episode, “Aporia,” that person emerged in full. It happened during his beautifully framed confession of murder to Gloria Burgle—less “just the facts” than a rambling, time-jumping journey through his entire sorry relationship with his kid brother Ray. It’s one of those moments where you can see an actor seizing the best stuff he’s been given all season, like a swimmer surfacing for that first big fresh gulp of air.

I reviewed this week’s fantastic episode of Fargo for Decider.

8 Comics You Need to Read This June

June 14, 2017

Mirror Mirror II by various (2dcloud)

There was a time when you could rely on comic books for bone-deep terror — the early-1950s was the heyday of horror tales produced by publishers like EC Comics. Alas, that heyday was cut short by a moral panic and a subsequent regime of censorship, and horror comics never quite recovered as a phenomenon. Thank goodness, then, for Mirror Mirror II, a new collection of short horror pieces edited by Sean T. Collins (who is a contributor to Vulture) and Julia Gfrörer. It awakens the long-underused genre and pushes your fear buttons in ways you could never have anticipated. It’s hard to pick the most memorably mind-devouring portion: Is it cartoonist Mou’s tale of a guy who one day finds himself painfully ejaculating letters that spell out a set of cryptic sentences? Or filmmaker Clive Barker’s painted vignettes of savaged and distorted human figures? Or Al Columbia’s unnerving single-panel depictions of old-timey cartoon characters engaging in unspeakable acts? Open wide and decide for yourself.

Abraham Riesman included our book MIRROR MIRROR II in his list of the month’s must-read comics for Vulture. I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to get it one way or the other — retail or online — either at the very end of the month or the very beginning of July. I can’t wait till you all can see it.

Tiny Pages Made of Ashes 5/19/17: MIRROR MIRROR II

June 14, 2017

When I was younger, I practiced vipassana meditation.  Unlike my current zen habit of ‘just-sitting’, vipassana asked me to contemplate the true nature of reality by focusing on certain images that would help bring me closer to truth. One of the pertinent images that drove the Buddha towards the path of enlightenment was that of a corpse. But when you haven’t really seen a corpse that wasn’t pumped full of embalming fluid and dressed up for you, there is some serious detachment from what it really means to see inside of Death. Still, I think those hours spent drumming up morbid-but-hollow imagery were the closest I had ever gotten to actually thinking about The Abject.  And I would argue it is only about as close as a S.I. swimsuit cover could take you to thinking about the truly erotic.

Bubblegum enlightenment.

In her foreword to Mirror Mirror II, Felker-Martin asks readers like me to consider horror on a continuum with the erotic; this realm—the realm of The Abject—weaves through our humanity; from our sexuality, to the desires we bury, and back through to the very fragility of our flesh and what that means for us as everyday creatures.  More than bubblegum enlightenment, this sets up a spectrum of artwork that acts as what anthology editor and contributor Julia Gfrörer calls on a recent Process Party podcast, a “sublime ritual of degradation.”

And while my girlfriend probably isn’t thrilled about the idea of watching Hellraiser, Mirror Mirror II brought at least one more person to the altar of fiction which rends flesh. Prior to this anthology, my interest in horror media generally was almost exactly ZERO.  Felker-Martin’s prognosis for the reader gave me pause: “What you’re about to read will hurt you.” Why in the fuck would I want that?

[…]

In writing this review, I first attempted to sum things up as best I could about the kind of work Mirror Mirror II is; but so many of the individual works themselves reached out and grabbed me in particular ways that I felt compelled to say something about each one.And this just kept happening.

There’s still more work to talk about, from Carol Swain (shit, one of my favorite comics in the book was hers!), Al Columbia(!), Noel Freibert, Dame Darcy(!!), Mou, Uno Moralez, a murderer’s row of Clive Barker illustrations(!!!!!), a piece authored by co-editor Collins, and more.  But any omissions certainly won’t haunt me as much as the work itself.

While words like “degradation” and “abject” don’t follow a straight line to “empathy” either in a thesaurus or in the minds of many people, there is obviously a broadening of perspective that comes when you are rendered vulnerable.  And you cannot will yourself into vulnerability.  Alone, you can only conjure decay once you are already no longer living and breathing.  While you can still feel and fuck and fear, you must be led by a dark muse to a fetid clearing where a more communal sense of perversion and violation crawls between your toes.  You must peer at what lies just beyond.

You must hurt.

This is the beginning and end of an absolutely extraordinary review of our book MIRROR MIRROR II by Comics Bulletin’s Austin Lanari. In between he goes in-depth on contributions by Laura Lannes, Sean Christensen, Aidan Koch, Josh Simmons, Trungles, Julia Gfrörer, and Meaghan Garvey, and basically exceeds my wildest expectations about readers getting it. I’m so grateful.

“bear witness, that is all”

June 14, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-06-14 at 11.21.59 PM

Sherilyn Fenn, aka Audrey Horne, quoted my review of the latest Twin Peaks and added a bunch of cherry emojis. So I’m dead now,

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Nine: “Fall”

June 14, 2017

Kim Wexler has lost control. Considering the company her partner and boyfriend Jimmy McGill will soon be keeping, if the worst thing that happens to her because of Jimmy is accidentally driving her car into a ditch, she’s gotten off easy. But while it’s easy to miss amid the fireworks between Jimmy and Chuck or the historical first meeting of Mike and Gus, not to mention Rhea Seehorn’s never-let-them-see-you-sweat performance, but this season has slowly ratcheted up the pressure on Kim to what turns out to be a physically unbearable degree. The episode is entitled “Fall,” and that’s basically what she does.

I reviewed this week’s very good Better Call Saul for the New York Observer. I talk about this elsewhere in the episode, but like Costa Ronin as Oleg Burov in The Americans, Michael Mando as Nacho Varga speaks barely a raised word and barely ever one in English and is delivering one of the best performances on television.

Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie – “Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie”

June 14, 2017

A good chorus can put a whole lot of questions to bed—about a song, about a band, about a reason to get up in the morning, you name it. Fleetwood Mac, whose catalog is so festooned with world-bestriding hits that they can do a best-of reunion tour and leave “Sara” and “Hold Me” off the setlist, know this better than just about any other band. Their colossal pop collaborations kept them together through years of intense interpersonal turmoil and full decades of cordial détente. Like, in the grand scheme of things, is it really that big a deal if you left your bass-player husband for the light guy if the result is “You Make Loving Fun”?

Which brings us to the curious case of Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie, a Fleetwood Mac album in all but name—and the conspicuous absence of the third member of the band’s songwriting trinity. Ending what seemed like a permanent departure from the band, keyboardist and vocalist McVie returned to the fold in 2014 for a massive tour. After it wrapped, she and guitarist/vocalist/production whiz Buckingham headed back to the studio together for the first time in well over a decade, with drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie joining them. As for Stevie Nicks, well: “What we do is go on the road, do a ton of shows and make lots of money. We have a lot of fun. Making a record isn’t all that much fun.”

Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie feels like a retort to Nicks’ statement. For McVie, the return to the band has been creatively invigorating as well as financially lucrative (Nicks herself gets that, facetiously describing McVie’s only other alternative to heading back to the studio: “‘Now I’m just gonna go back to London and sit in my castle for two years?’ She wanted to keep working”); Buckingham’s a born striver who kills time between tours by adding guitar texture to Nine Inch Nails records. Going on the road and making money is “what we do”? The pair’s collaboration feels like a “speak for yourself” in album form. To paraphrase a Rumours classic, they’ll make recording fun!

I reviewed the new album by bonafide pop-rock geniuses Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie for Pitchfork. It’s definitely fun, just not fundamental.

“Twin Peaks” Thoughts, Season Three, Episode Six

June 14, 2017

Harry Dean Stanton is 90 years old, though he’s looked so world weary for so long that he seems somehow ageless and immortal. In light of the key Twin Peaks players who’ve died before the series’ return to the air – Jack Nance, Frank Silva, Frances Bay, Don S. Davis, Warren Frost, David Bowie, and most hauntingly Miguel Ferrer and Catherine Coulson, who reprised their roles as Albert Rosenfield and the Log Lady before they passed away – we’re fortunate to have him. When his character, Carl Rodd, tells his younger companion “I’ve been smokin’ for 75 years, every fuckin’ day,” he literally laughs in the face of his own mortality. But way back when we first met him in Fire Walk With Me, set nearly 30 years ago, he intimated to a pair of FBI agents investigating a Black Lodge–related murder that he’d seen too much. “I’ve already gone places,” he said. “I just want to stay where I am.”

Making Stanton’s Carl the Virgil on our journey to this episode’s particular Hell – the hit-and-run killing of a little boy by local monster Richard Horne (Eamon Farren) – lends even more weight to the moment. It provides a contrast between the old man’s long life – achieved against the medical odds, by his own admission – and the life of the little boy, cut so horrifically short. It offers an unparalleled range of emotion, beginning with him simply sitting on a bench and enjoying the wind and light through the trees and ending with him seeing one of the worst things a person can see. And whether he’s watching the boy’s soul ascend or simply providing his mother with human connection and validation by touching her and looking into her eyes, his role is just that: to see, to bear witness. It’s not that witnesses are in short supply – plenty of bystanders observe the accident and its aftermath. But when Carl takes the next step and comforts the grieving mother, he’s the only one to bear witness – bear as in a cross.

[…]

Two crucial links to the murdered child who set the entire chain of events in motion are uncovered in an episode that forces us to confront the killing of children face-on. Laura’s face appears in the opening credits every week, but this is a way to make her presence, and her absence, hit home. Doing any less would be a cop out, a dodge, a refusal to bear witness. “What kind of world are we living in where people can behave like this—treat other people this way, without any compassion or feeling for their suffering?” asks Janey-E Jones (Naomi Watts) elsewhere in the episode. “We are living in a dark, dark age.” This show has the courage to shine a light on it.

I reviewed this week’s extremely difficult Twin Peaks for Rolling Stone. I have to say, the response I’ve gotten to my writing on the season so far, and this episode in particular, is extremely gratifying. What it’s doing means a lot to me.

“American Gods” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney”

June 14, 2017

The best way to describe American Gods is that it features Nick Sobotka as a leprechaun and somehow I still don’t like it. “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” the seventh and, shockingly, penultimate episode of AG’s first season (seriously, doesn’t it seem like they have a lot of ground left to cover) features Nick Sobotka as a leprechaun more than ever; while I’m still not crazy about it, it’s a better episode than most.

I reviewed last weekend’s American Gods for Decider.

Cut to Black: The best (and worst) post-‘Sopranos’ series finales

June 9, 2017

It’s been a decade since “Don’t Stop Believin'” cut off in Holsten’s, and The Sopranos cut off with it. June 10 marks the tenth anniversary of the original airing of “Made in America,” the final episode of creator David Chase’s modern mafia masterpiece. Credited (correctly!) with kicking off a new Golden Age of Television, the show ended on an equally influential note: silence. We’ll never know whether mob boss Tony Soprano was killed as he sat down for dinner with his family (as in nuclear, not crime), or if his life simply went on, with the next FBI raid, hitman or plate of ziti always just around the corner. Nor are we meant to figure it out, no matter what you’ve read on the internet. For Chase, the ambiguity and uncertainty speak not only to Tony’s uniquely precarious existence, but all of ours’ as well.

Demanding, divisive and pretty much perfect for the show it concluded, “Made in America” remains the gold standard for finales to this day. In one form or another, nearly all its successors are a reflection of it, whether attempting to right its perceived wrongs or live up to its masterpiece status. Moreover, as one of the first major shows of its kind that was allowed to end in its own time and on its own terms, The Sopranosaccidentally popularized the unfortunate idea that a show is only as good as its final episode, and that if you don’t “stick the landing,” nothing that came before is worthwhile. That’s an extreme overreaction, of course — a bad finale is not a magic eraser that wipes out the hours you spent enjoying the show up until that point — but it’s a concept creators and audiences alike now wrestle with.

With Tony trapped in that diner limbo for ten years (Schrödinger’s Soprano?), we’re taking a look at six of the standout series finales that have aired since: Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Lost and Battlestar Galactica. What did they get right, or wrong, about the shows they’re concluding? What did viewers take away — and what should they have focused on instead? Should we be asking if they stuck the landing, or if they leapt into the unknown? Fire up the Journey and find out.

I wrote about some of the most satisfying and disappointing finales of the past decade, all involving really good shows, for my debut at Mic.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Eight: “Who Rules the Land of Denial?”

June 9, 2017

This is the one you’ve been waiting for. Whether you’ve been one of Fargo Season Three’s inexplicably large number of skeptics or singing its praises from the jump, this is the episode that either puts paid to your criticism or pays off your faith. It’s called “Who Rules the Land of Denial?”, and it features the season’s best action/thriller sequences, its goriest crimes, its biggest surprises, its most striking cinematography, and its most direct trafficking in the uncanny.

I adored this week’s episode of Fargo, which I reviewed for Decider.

“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Seven: “Slip”

June 9, 2017

“To our four-corner strategy!” So goes the toast proposed by Mesa Verde head honcho Kevin to his right-hand woman Paige and attorney Kim as they dine out to celebrate their success and plan its next stages. On “Slip,” this week’s episode of Better Call Saul, the show does the good banker one better. It rotates between fully five functionally separate storylines, starring Jimmy McGill, Mike Ehrmantraut, Chuck McGill, Kim Wexler, and Nacho Varga respectively. Such is the strength of the series, the least flashy top-tier drama on television right now, and of the performances given by Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Michael McKean, Rhea Seehorn, and Michale Mando, that I’d happily watch a spinoff starring any one of those five characters exclusively.

I reviewed this week’s beautifully balanced Better Call Saul for the New York Observer.

Goodbye, ‘The Leftovers’: How HBO’s Show Went From Good to Canon-Worthy Great

June 5, 2017

Then something wonderful happened. As the first season went on, the show got weirder, wilder, and – no coincidence here – better. And given the way they operate primarily through symbolism, the Guilty Remnant are a great place to begin looking for answers as to how.

For starters, the GR and their leader Patti Levin (the great Ann Dowd) made for antagonists of a sort we’d never seen before. Like an army of proto-Pepes, their modus operandi was trolling: specifically, a deliberate mockery of everything the survivors clung to, right on down to the memories of their missing loved ones themselves. The group’s climactic assault on the town of Mapleton wasn’t a murder spree; it was simply using realistic life-sized dolls to recreate the Departed and spook the squares. The cult pulled a similar trick the following year down in Miracle, Texas, when they threatened to bomb the bridge that led to the miraculously Departure-free town and wound up merely throwing open the gates to the hippie hordes camped outside. They violated the norms of every day life in ways that were simultaneously horrifying and darkly hilarious.

Looking over The Leftovers‘ three seasons, it’s hard not to see shades of the Guilty Remnant’s chain-smoking, white-wearing mischief in the show’s writing staff itself. Simply put, there was no convention of storytelling, external or internal, these folks wouldn’t break if it made for more intense viewing. Most famously, Season Two tossed the balance and setting the show had worked so hard to establish aside – relocating from New York to Texas, reloading the cast with a whole new family, pushing many of the original characters aside for episodes at a time. It also replaced the gloomy original opening credits with jaunty country music and brightly lit family photos that showed disappearing people basically merge with the stars, a sign the show was capable of recognizing its excesses and playfully tweaking itself for them.

I wrote about how The Leftovers got great by going crazy for Rolling Stone. Really going to miss this show. I can only hope that others will pick up the torch and carry on its blend of emotional rigor and balls-out risk-taking. (Too many shows emphasize the latter at the expense of the former.)

“American Gods” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “A Murder of Gods”

June 5, 2017

There’s obviously a lot to be said about America’s demented gun culture. Thanks to the rise of Trump, sadly, there’s now also plenty to say about American neofascism. And the idea of a corporation that demands cult-like devotion from its employees even as it sacrifices their well-being for its own ends may be the richest idea American Gods has played with yet. But in simply conflating all three elements, the show loses the chance to say anything unique or insightful about them. A one-company town full of gun nuts wearing fascist armbands tells us nothing about one-company towns, or gun nuts, or fascism. It does, however, tell us a whole lot about the self-congratulatory liberalism of American Gods, which wants to be rewarded for saying “See? It can happen here,” but which is really saying “and by ‘here’ we mean ‘in this small Southern town full of brainwashed Nazis who are nothing like you and me, dear viewer.’”

I reviewed the seventh episode of American Gods, which remains a waste of the talent of everyone involved, for Decider.

“Twin Peaks” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Five

June 5, 2017

The shot that hits hardest is neither comedy nor horror, but pure pleasure. It’s a close-up on the face of Becky (Amanda Seyfried!), Shelly‘s troubled daughter, staring up at the sunlit sky as she rides around in her boyfriend’s car. In this moment of literal wide-eyed wonder, the show captures the joy of being alive. But more than that, it acknowledges that this joy really couldn’t give a shit if it comes from the bump of coke you did in your good-for-nothing boyfriend’s beater. You take your happiness where you can get it, and Becky gets it riding through town with the top down and her seatbelt off, while the Paris Sisters croon “I Love How You Love Me” on the radio.

Looking back at the show’s original two seasons and the prequel film Fire Walk With Me, it’s striking how many islands of bliss and contentment its screwed-up characters carve out for themselves amid all the murder and magic and mayhem. Think about how happy Shelly and Bobby were together, despite the ever-present menace presence of her Leo. Think about Coop, delighting in everything from the camaraderie of his friends in the Bureau and the Sheriff’s Department to the simple pleasures of coffee and pie. Think about Laura Palmer herself, dancing around with her best friend Donna at a picnic just weeks before her death, her life of addiction and abuse momentarily forgotten.

And this big-hearted optimism is not just limited to Twin Peaks within Lynch’s oeuvre, for that matter. The shot of Seyfried’s Becky completely blissing out is a clear echo of the opening of Mulholland Drive, in which new cast member Naomi Watts beams so brightly about the Hollywood dreams she believes are about to come true for her. If you focus solely on the filmmaker’s use of terrifying supernatural entities, or his ironic weaponization of Americana, or his treatment of sexual violence, you could come away wrongfully believing he’s a sadist (or simply a nihilist). But moments like Becky’s car ride show that he believes happiness is possible despite our fucked-up surroundings. As good as it is to have the comedy, the tragedy and the horror of this show back on the small screen, it’s even better to have that beautiful beating heart back as well.

I reviewed tonight’s Twin Peaks for Rolling Stone. Dear god what a treat this show is.

“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Eight: “The Book of Nora”

June 5, 2017

If your primary interest here is watching Nora navigate her journey to an alternate dimension, traverse the empty globe, track down her surviving family, change her mind when she sees that they’re happy without her and she’d just destroy that hard-earned happiness, turn around, cross the globe again to find the scientist who invented the Departure machine, wait for him to rebuild it, and travel back through, then yeah, you’re getting told rather than shown. You’d have needed, conservatively, an entire episode to see it all. If you really wanted to get the flavor and feeling of this all-new, all-different Leftovers world, you might have asked for an entire season. Maybe each episode could be split between the main branch of reality and, oh I dunno, let’s call it a sideways universe? You get the picture. I’m not here to tell you that following Carrie Coon through a depopulated planet that’s even more emotionally and physically scarred by the Sudden Departure than her own would be boring — it sounds amazing, frankly. But for all kinds of logistical and financial reasons, it clearly wasn’t in the cards.

What is The Leftovers showing us instead? Just Nora, herself, in one of the many sustained closeups that director Mimi Leder uses to drive this episode, the way another show might use action sequences. We stare at her face as she spells out the entire saga. You might expect the telling to break her all over again, but she’s had years to process what she experienced. So perhaps the most extraordinary thing that has ever happened to a human being in history gets boiled down to a story told over a kitchen table between two estranged lovers, in a calm but sad voice, with a placid but sad face. The Leftovers has the confidence in its camera and in its performers to convey the enormity of it all, and Nora’s lonesome acceptance of that enormity, just by watching and listening to Carrie Coon talk.

Tellingly, Nora starts breaking down only when she gets to the most recent development: Kevin’s return to her life forces her to face the fear that kept her away from him all this time, the fear that he wouldn’t believe her. Here’s where “show, don’t tell” comes into play again. As we’ve seen, Nora has long since come to terms with her astonishing journey to another world and back again, in search of a lost family she now chooses to leave behind after years of grief over having that decision taken out of her hands. That’s not really what this conversation is about, for her. It’s about whether she can ever get close to anyone again, or whether her peerless pain has rendered her separate from all of humanity basically forever. To find out, she has to face her fear of rejection by the human she once cared about most. She has to find out if Kevin Garvey believes her.

“I believe you,” he says, through a face so warped by emotion his skin seems to be sloughing off his skull on one side of his face. “You do?” she asks, stunned. “Why wouldn’t I believe you?” he replies. “You’re here.” “I’m here,” she confirms, to herself and to him, her hand in his, both of them smiling through tears.

It’s the final dialogue in the series, and it wouldn’t work nearly as well had we actually watched Nora’s trans-dimensional adventures. Here, we’re put in the same position as Kevin, whose own alternate-reality experiences the show has depicted in lovingly bizarre detail, enhancing the contrast with the finale’s approach to Nora’s. We’re presented with the same information and asked to make the same decision. That, not the trip from world to world, is what The Leftovers wanted to show: a desperate person asking to be believed, and another desperate person believing.

I reviewed the final episode of The Leftovers for Vulture. I’ll miss this show very much.

“Fargo” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Seven: “The Law of Inevitability”

June 4, 2017

“Under the present brutal and primitive conditions on this planet, every person you meet should be regarded as one of the walking wounded. We have never seen a man or woman not slightly deranged by either anxiety or grief. We have never seen a totally sane human being.”

—Robert Anton Wilson

“For Pete’s sake, hon, what’s wrong?”

“The world. The world is wrong. It looks like my world, but everything is different.”

—Esther and Sy Feltz

I don’t know about you, but over the past few years I’ve had this conversation with my loved ones almost verbatim, tears and all. The world is wrong, isn’t it? For almost all of us? Maybe it’s depression or anxiety or trauma or some other mental illness that makes it feel that way. Maybe it’s the neoliberal nightmare of late capitalism and the rapacious gangsters in suits who’ve seized the opportunity to milk us all dry. For me it’s both, but who’s counting? And who, really, can separate the two? Seven episodes deep, Fargo Season 3 remains a slippery thing, the shape of its final act unclear, a far cry from the escalation toward the preordained Sioux Falls Massacre that gave Season 2 its irresistible momentum. But man oh man, this part is as solid and heavy as a stone. This is a true story.

I reviewed last week’s Fargo for Decider.

“The Americans” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Thirteen: “The Soviet Division”

May 31, 2017

SPOILER ALERT

“The Soviet Division,” as the finale is called, ends with Elizabeth insisting that they can’t return to the Soviet Union as planned. Philip’s intel about Kimmy’s father, who’s slated to take over the titular branch of the CIA, is too valuable for them to retire now. Philip himself seemed to realize this when he brought it to Elizabeth in the first place, instead of simply discarding the recording that revealed it as was his original instinct. People will see this as an enormous anticlimax, and they may even be right—I certainly double-checked the time stamp on the episode just to make sure this really was the end of the season. But never believe this season of The Americans had nothing to say. It may have been more discursive and elliptical than previous efforts, likely a result of its first-ever guaranteed subsequent season. But what a menacing statement it makes about how much we rely on our family, and how willing we are to distort and destroy it to get what we need and want.

I reviewed the unusual season finale of The Americans for the New York Observer.

“American Gods” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “Lemon Scented You”

May 31, 2017

“It isn’t our fault they found other ways to occupy their time,” says the Hollywood goddess Media, played by Gillian Anderson. “That’s all you do — occupy their time,” Wednesday retorts. “We gave back, we gave them meaning.”

There’s a self-defeating irony in this claim, for this episode in particular. If all these new gods do is help us kill time, nothing deeper, why bother dressing Gillian Anderson up as Marilyn Monroe in this scene and (cue Tumblr gifsets!) David Bowie in another? Doesn’t the mental depth charge that the appearance of those icons ignites in the viewer — an effect clearly intended by the show itself, or it wouldn’t have bothered casting Anderson, an icon in her own right thanks to her work on its weird-America antecedent The X-Files — depend precisely on them meaning more to us than mere distraction?

Then again, perhaps it’s better of American Gods really does take Wednesday’s position in this argument. Its incorporation of Monroe’s tragic death, here described by the woman herself as a CIA assassination, is easier to justify if the show fundamentally disregards her value to her fans. (Not for nothing, but another of American Gods’ antecedents, that little show called Twin Peaks, had a more humane outlook on the matter.) So too is its cringey Bowie scene, an act of revivification as creepy and gross in its own way as what Laura Moon is going through. With an egregious pastiche of his Scary Monsters period playing in the background courtesy of composer Brian Reitzell, whose tacky omnipresent bombast is one of the series’ most distracting elements, the Bowie-deity incorporates lyrical snippets from the musician’s actual songs into its conversation with fellow new god Technical Boy. Every one of the lyrics is so much better than the dialogue — every one of the songs is so much better than the show — that, again, it all becomes easier to swallow if Fuller and company regard the originals as the mental junk food Wednesday implies they are.

Now that I’ve beaten the shit out of the show for three indulgent paragraphs on this point, it’s important to note that it’s fallacious just to assume the show’s position and Wednesday’s are one and the same. Isn’t he something of an unreliable narrator, as Mad Sweeney asserts to Laura in this very episode? Isn’t the whole show about the power of belief, the same force behind both gods and superstars? Isn’t author Neil Gaiman’s entire schtick based on The Magic of Storytelling — a form of wizardry with which the former Norma Jean Baker and David Jones would be quite familiar, seeing how they used it to transform themselves first and foremost?

Yes, yes, and yes — which makes the story’s stacking of the deck against the new gods in favor of the old all the harder to parse.

I reviewed this week’s episode of American Gods, which, hoo boy, not good, for Decider. The Bowie scene in particular gave me the worst case of second-hand embarrassment for a show I’ve had in years. That said, Emily Browning is doing pretty extraordinary work here, and I write about that at length in the review as well.

“Twin Peaks” thoughts, Season Three, Episodes Three and Four

May 31, 2017

With four hours of the The Return under our belts, it’s getting a bit easier to understand its overall approach. Is it leaning hard on all of the original’s most esoteric and terrifying material? Yes. Is it still the kind of FBI/cop show that serves as the missing link between Hill Street Blues and The X-Files? Also yes. Is it going to make time for ridiculous comedy detours just like it did 25 years ago? Again, yes. Will it serve up the love and loss of soap opera and melodrama, with the emotional volume cranked so high that it could read as parody? Once more, yes. It’s just going to do all those things slowly, parceling them out a little bit at a time over the course of multiple hours, instead of whipsawing back and forth in every single outing. The comedy of part four, for example, provides a counterbalance for the black psychedelia of part three; you need to see both, however, to strike the balance.

In other words, as suspect as this kind of description has become in TV-watching circles, the new Twin Peaks really is an 18-hour movie. If you’ve ever seen Lynch’s epic-length Inland Empire, which is three full hours of his most experimental narrative work since Eraserhead, it’s not hard to imagine the director chomping at the bit for the chance to explore obsessions over an even larger canvas. For television this gutsy and this good, he can take all the time he needs.

Teach Me How to Dougie: I reviewed episodes three and four of Twin Peaks Season Three for Rolling Stone. I think people are starting to realize that all four episodes so far have been stone fucking classics. It’s basically a miracle.

“The Leftovers” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Seven: “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)”

May 31, 2017

At the beginning of season two, The Leftovers’ theme song made its own sudden departure. The epically morose music by series composer Max Richter vanished, along with its Sistine Chapel–style imagery of people falling away from Earth to the anguish of the loved ones left behind. They were replaced by the jaunty country jangle of Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be” and a sort of reverse-Polaroid montage of family photos created by inescapable prestige-TV title designers Elastic. As of tonight, the circle is complete. “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother),” the series’ penultimate episode, combines the two opening sequences, using the soundtrack of the former to accompany the imagery of the latter.

Richter has done fine work for The Leftovers as time has gone by, but his original opening theme sounds hilariously dour and overwrought after the black-comic brilliance of seasons two and three. Or maybe I have that backward: Is it the ironically sunny pictures of everyday people smiling as their loved ones vanish and their world comes crashing to an end that’s inappropriate, given the gravity of the situation as conveyed by Richter’s music? It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose. Which makes the use of the original theme song in this context just as predictive as every other opening theme has been during this wild final season. After all, the episode ends with Kevin Garvey, doomsday-cultist president of the United States of America in an alternate dimension, facing down Kevin Garvey, international assassin and the president’s identical twin, with the fate of the entire world at stake. Who ought to win depends on where you’re sitting.

I reviewed the second-to-last episode of The Leftovers ever for Vulture. This show sure seems to be going out on a high note!